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District Policing Partnerships (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

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7.34 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 February be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, your Lordships might find it helpful if I briefly set out the basis of the proposals.

The main purpose of the order is to ensure that district policing partnerships in Northern Ireland continue to function without interruption. As the legislation currently stands, these bodies would cease to operate at the date of the next local government election until reconstituted. The next such election is scheduled for May. Due to the appointment process for independent DPP members, which is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the reconstitution of the DPPs will not occur for at least six months after the local government election. During that period there will be no DPPs in operation, which is of course unacceptable given their important role.

To deal with that, on this occasion and each time there is a local government election, the order proposes to extend temporarily the office of both currently elected and independent members until the new DPPs are established. The order is a permanent solution to that provision.

The order also proposes to make two amendments to current legislation that are deemed beneficial to the practical workings of DPPs. First, holding the position as chair and vice-chair of DPPs is currently open to elected members only. The order provides that the position of vice-chair would, for reconstituted DPPs, be open to independent members only. The proposal is seen as integrating independent members further into the role of DPPs and acknowledges the important contribution they make to monitoring policing in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, the order amends a "removal from office" clause to include a conviction for a criminal offence after appointment, whether committed before or after the date of appointment. It is intended that the provisions of the order will be brought into force on 1 April 2005 to allow them to be in place prior to the local government election scheduled for May.

There has been a wide consultation process with all the relevant parties, including those directly affected by the changes—namely, the 26 DPPs—and addresses concerns raised by those bodies and others. Overall, the proposals have been welcomed and are considered appropriate.

It might be helpful to remind the House of the role of the DPPs. The functions of these bodies are set out in Section 16 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Their role is to consult the public on policing issues, generate local-level dialogue and provide views to the police district commander and the policing board. They also monitor the performance of police locally in carrying out the local policing plan, and the wider annual policing plan. I take this opportunity also to acknowledge that many of those participating in this role have done so at the expense of their own personal safety, for which we thank them and pay tribute to them. I commend this order to your Lordships.

Moved. That the draft Order laid before the House on 21 February he approved.—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

My Lords, once again I thank the noble Baroness for such a clear explanation of what the Government are proposing to do with this order. I should like first to associate myself with her comments about members who, in certain parts, have served on DPPs at considerable risk to themselves, and who indeed have been threatened and attacked.

I am the first to admit that I was critical of the process of setting up DPPs when the Act was being debated. At the end of the day, I believe that we got the pro forma about right. I regularly read the reports from the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and it would appear from them that the DPPs are doing an excellent job and playing a very proactive part in the linkages between the Policing Board, the Chief Constable. the PSNI and local communities.

The noble Baroness said that the role of vice-chairman was open to independent members of DPPs. As I understand it, the position of vice-chairman must be held by an independent member.

I am sorry, my Lords; if I did not say "only" clearly enough, I should have done. I correct the noble Lord.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that. The order does a lot of good administrative tidying up. I am not an expert on policing but it seems that the DPPs at this stage are a great success. I believe that there are difficulties in filling all the places on DPPs. That is not altogether surprising, for reasons that I have already given. Extending the life of DPPs to allow a six-month gap between the election and reappointment of the next DPP is eminently sensible. I support the order.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward the order. I associate these Benches with the remarks made about DPP members and their bravery in the very difficult times in the past. We hope that in the future they will continue to flourish. We welcome the order; its provisions are very sensible and right.

I had to turn to the Explanatory Notes to gain an understanding of why the consultation period has been shortened from 12 to four weeks. However, we understand the circumstances and hope that such an occurrence will be an exception rather than the rule in the future.

Article 3, on the effects of local government elections on membership of DPPs, makes a very sensible change. It would be unfortunate to lose the good work that the DPPs are doing, even if only for a short period. due to a technical fault in the legislation.

I am also glad to see the amended wording in Article 4, on the removal of members of a DPP from office. It is to be hoped that such a situation will not arise, but it is better to prevent the situation of a member being able to remain on a DPP following a conviction just because the offence was committed before his or her appointment. That would go entirely against the spirit of the purpose of the DPPs.

We also welcome the amendment in Article 5 regarding the vice-chairman of DPPs. It is important that we should not prevent or preclude independent members from that position. We very much support the order.

My Lords, I particularly welcome the order; it is common sense. I thank the Minister and the spokespersons for both Her Majesty's Opposition and the Liberal Democrats for their tributes to the members of the district policing partnerships. I am a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. We have heard today that, yet again, another member has been intimidated, in the Newry area. That goes on almost regularly. Some members are showing great courage and making a genuine effort to make policing work in Northern Ireland in a manner acceptable to all communities there. They should be supported; the Government's support is much appreciated.

I can confirm that the DPPs are now working throughout every district council area in Northern Ireland. We had one problem, which went on for some time, but it has been resolved. All are working effectively and are very useful.

On the restriction of the vice-chairmanship to independents, is the chairmanship restricted 1 o elected members or is it possible to have an independent both as a chairman and a vice-chairman? Given that local elections are about to be held in Northern Ireland, and since district policing partnerships comprise independents and elected district councillors, will DPP members who are district councillors but who lose their seats in the forthcoming local government election immediately cease to be members of the district policy partnership, or will they continue until the new DPI' is reconstructed?

My Lords, I want to associate myself with the Minister and other noble Lords who have paid tribute to the setting up of the DPPs. When I first came to this House, there were community liaison police committees in Northern Ireland. I could not understand why the Government wanted to change them as they worked so well, but I now see the value of DPPs. I add my name to the tributes to members. I know personally a few members who work under great stress and threat. In a strange way the threat seems to make them all the more determined; that is good for Northern Ireland.

The Minister talked about a six-month gap before the renewal of the DPP. Could a provision be included to ensure that the change did not happen all at once, and that it was staggered? DPP members have to learn a lot of things and keep that information in their head. If there were a complete renewal of DPPs, we would lose that experience in some areas. Staggering renewal or bringing members in at different times would help the situation.

7.45 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the order. Like other noble Lords I welcome this order, which is designed to extend the lifespan of existing district policing partnerships beyond the forthcoming election period, although the long-term beneficial impact of DPPs is yet to be totally evaluated.

It is, however, extremely important that for whatever benefits the DPPs can deliver the Government maximise the continuity of service of those members already sitting. Given the time that it would take to interview people and the disruption of the holiday period following elections, it would probably be optimistic to imagine that the new DPPs would be operational before January 2006. As such, it makes sense that the current DPPs should operate as they are until that time. Continuity in this matter is essential.

Another important point is that councillors who are already serving should be allowed to maintain their positions until the end of the session, regardless of whether they are returned in the forthcoming local elections. That again will reinforce that sense of continuity.

Where it has not been possible to form a DPP as quickly as would have been wished, or where a DPP has functioned for less than two years, there should be, as far as possible, reappointment of independent members so that, again, maximum use is made of the experience of those members sitting.

I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the gallant members of DPPs. People on this side of the water may not fully appreciate their courage but we who wish to operate the system back in Northern Ireland fully appreciate it. I identify myself with the remarks about their courage.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords on all sides. A very constructive approach has been taken all round the House to the debate on this order. I apologise if my voice was not clear enough; I shall confirm, so that nobody is in any doubt, that the position of chairman is restricted to elected members. Elected members will continue to serve during the transition period. The Northern Ireland Office intends to publish a code on completion of the order's parliamentary process and prior to the launch of the appointment competition for the independent DPP members. The timing of the launch of the competition is a matter for the board but it is likely to take place in the next couple of months.

My Lords, the noble Baroness says that elected members will continue to serve on DPPs. Does that include elected members who lose their seats in the forthcoming local elections? Will they continue to serve on DPPs?

My Lords, my understanding, from the information in front of me, is that that is the position. Were I wrong, I would of course want to correct that immediately.

The reconstitution of DPPs and the appointment of independent members are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. It is the biggest public appointment exercise across all 22 district councils in Northern Ireland.

In response to the query from my noble friend Lady Blood and the noble Lord, Lord Laird, I understand that the policing board—the noble Lord would know this probably better than I—is considering the process, which will include reappointments where suitable to ensure that continuity, knowledge and experience that have been built up are not lost.

I confirm that the answer that I gave earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, was correct.

On Question. Motion agreed to.